Words: Matt Innes
George Ellis is a renowned Australian conductor, composer and arranger whose has forged a 35-year career by combining his years of classical training with his first true love, rock music.
“In high school I met with people who could play music and made friends with them, but it was rock music,” George explains. “Even though I had learnt piano classically before, it was rock music that I was interested in playing.”
Throughout his teens George pursued his rock & roll passion, learning guitar and playing in bands that covered bands such as The Beatles, Rolling Stones and The Beach Boys. A solid musical foundation was formed to which George one day would unexpectedly return.
It wasn’t until after completing a university degree in an unrelated field that George found his pathway into classical composition and arrangement, eventually heading overseas to study under an international master.
Although George has conducted symphony orchestras all over the world – from Athens to Kuala Lumpur and in every Australian capital city – and commands a vast repertoire that also includes opera, musical theatre and jazz, he found his niche in bringing his classically-trained sensitivity to the rock music of his formative years.
“What I eventually found was work that was a combination of classical music and rock music, so my two worlds collided in a nice way and combined the two,” George says.
“In the past eight years or more I’ve been conducting and arranging for orchestras in combination with bands like The Church or tribute bands for The Beatles, David Bowie and Queen. Even though I do lots of different things, what I mainly do these days is combine rock music with symphony orchestras, arrange for them and conduct those.”
It was George’s penchant and specialty for melding rock and classical music that brought him to the attention of iconic Australian band The Church when they were planning their 30th anniversary celebrations.
For George, getting the call-up to work with one of the bands that were pivotal in the bedrock of his musical upbringing was a rock & roll dream come true.
“I absolutely loved working with them,” he says.
“I was in high school and a friend told me to come over because he had a new album that he wanted me to hear. He played the first side and to me the first song was great, the second song was great and the third song was ‘Unguarded Moment’, and I said ‘I’ve got to go and buy this album’.
“Many years later I got an email from [The Church] drummer Tim Powles, who I’d never heard of before; he said they were looking for a composer and conductor, and would I be interested in coming to work with The Church? I said ‘The Church, as in Steve Kilbey? Of course I would!’”
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Out of an extensive career spanning nearly four decades and a swathe of achievements, including conducting the Opening Ceremony for the Sydney 2000 Olympics (televised live to over three billion global viewers!), George says his work with The Church remains the brightest highlight.
“At first because I didn’t know them all that well but as we worked together and after the concert we became very close friends,” he says.
“I still remember looking behind me during the show and Steve was doing this sort of yoga pose while singing and I thought ‘this is an out-of-body experience.’”